When I saw Muslim Girl founder Amani Al- Khatahtbeh post her Elle article on Instagram titled, Four Middle Eastern and Muslim Actress on the Roles They Don’t Get and the Ones They Won’t Take, I had to reread the title thinking, “Wait, we can actually say ‘NO’ to something?”
This interview, featuring four inspirational Muslim women, by a Muslim media leader herself, doesn’t just speak to those in television and film, but to all women in marginalized fields who are the only representative in the room.
It was amazing how four very different women spoke to me and so many other young professionals like me. They all came from such unique backgrounds and immigration journeys, but still shared similar stories about “fitting in,” and the impact media has on how they see themselves.
One of the women is Sarah Shahi, a Persian actress from The L Word, Person of Interest, and NBC’s Reverie. She described her struggles growing up in an all white neighborhood: “All I wanted was to assimilate. I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to have a mustache at nine.” Growing up “Muslim,” “Middle Eastern,” “Arab,” “Desi,” or “Assumed Descendant of Osama Bin Laden” is not easy. When Middle Eastern, Desi, and Arab women enter puberty, it shows up loud for us. All we want is to belong and not stick out. When you are so young, no one tells you how to handle being different, how to make different seem cool, when all we see is their judgey eyes and their weird questions.
We feel like a specimen in front of them — a weird, exotic, furry specimen — when that is the last thing you want at age 8. Nikhol Boosheri challenged traditional norms by starring in The Bold Type as a proud LGBTQ Muslim woman. She was raised by a single Iranian mother; born in Pakistan, raised in Canada. She said, “I was one of three people of color in my entire primary school. And I always just wanted so hard to blend in. You see what the white kids are eating for lunch and you’re like, ‘Why can’t I have that? Why do I have to bring ghormeh sabzi for lunch?’”
Sarah’s father was a drug addict, and her mother quickly learned English and started a flourishing business from nothing. How we learn what a woman is comes from how we see our mothers and aunts acting around us. Her mother told her, “You work hard, you read, you get yourself super smart, and you believe that there is nothing you can’t do. And in the end, you are just as good as any man out there, if not better.”
Dina Shihabi was born in Saudi Arabia but lived in Dubai well known for her role in Amazon’s Jack Ryan. Dina challenges the narratives Muslim women fall into by creating her own series taking back the writer’s rooms, “My brothers are blonde and blue-eyed. We don’t all look alike.”
At first, the focus was to have representation in any form on the scree; now as times have changed and there are more people of color taking over the media, it is important to ask, “Who are we being represented by?” shared Sheila Vand. Sheila Vand is first generation Persian American born in California. She has acted in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, We the Animals, and October’s Viper Club.
“Oh, I’m a little nervous. I just don’t want the character to become a terrorist. I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotype, especially any anti-brown stereotype, especially in 2018. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m pretty clear about that. But in general, when I voice my concerns, I get nervous about jeopardizing my job, even now, talking to you at a roundtable where I should feel safe. White actors are not put in that position,” added Sheila. When Muslim, Middle Eastern, Arab, and Desi women are stuck playing “Muslim” roles, they have a hard choice to make: Take the position of their career, and find some way to humanize the character and shift the narrative with nuances, or speak up. When actors do speak up, they can be replaced by thousands all eager for a role.
Nikhol shared about how the story is bigger than that one moment of airtime. “Stories have the power to open up your perspective and, ultimately, a sense of understanding between people. So when we only see one version of a minority group, we deny that group the opportunity to feel seen and heard. It perpetuates tired and dangerous stereotypes, and it’s just a missed opportunity to connect with others.”
“Just like you guys have probably experienced, I’ve been rejected for white roles for not looking white enough, and by the Middle Eastern roles for not looking Middle Eastern enough” shared Sarah. Non-Muslims play Muslim roles and or non-Middle Easterners play Middle Eastern roles. We are being replaced by people assuming our imposed upon culture and actions to fit into the white agenda. The perpetuation of Muslims in terrorist and dehumanizing roles furthers fears against Muslims – whether it is Islamophobic hate slurs, hate violence with Chapel Hill to putting sanctions on Iran when the rest of the world stands opposed.
Our religion is not your cinematic plot – our religion is not your next Emmy. Our religion is how we breathe, how we put our head down at the end of the night, and no matter how much the media shows us as descendants of Osama Bin Laden, we will not change our religion for your hate.
“There’s a lot of hate in the world, and at the end of the day, a lot of people are getting their information from the screen. So it’s important to be careful that we’re not buying into the wrong projects, that we’re contributing to a safer space for everybody. We have a responsibility when we’re part of moving the cultural needle,” added Sarah.
The rest of the world is obsessed with American media. They see themselves through the lens that Hollywood showcases them. Their sense of self worth, their self respect, it all comes from the power that American media holds. When I ask the refugees I work with how does social media affect how they see themselves, they say “If America hates us, everyone does. If Muslims are terrorist in action drama or being killed in America, we cannot get asylum because they fear us coming into their country. They don’t want to hear our hopes and dreams for our children.” My research shows the media portrayal has an impact in further spiralling in their depression feeling like they are not good enough to have their lives saved because they are Muslim.
Dina eloquently describes this, “Television is a huge part of the collective consciousness. If you’re growing up overseas and watching TV and all you see is people like you represented with guns, screaming ‘Allahu Akbar,’ then you think, ‘Oh shit, the rest of the world thinks that’s what we are.’ So then you feel this need to prove you’re not that thing — don’t say your last name, don’t grow a beard, don’t present yourself in the way that you think the world expects of you. It’s this really self-conscious, scary feeling for people coming from outside America. You feel the need to apologize for yourself. To prove you’re not a bad person.”
Don’t show up as your real self, be more Western to make white people comfortable.
“So then you feel this need to prove you’re not that thing—don’t say your last name, don’t grow a beard, don’t present yourself in the way that you think the world expects of you. You feel the need to apologize for yourself. To prove you’re not a bad person.”
When I began writing this, I thought it was going to be an article about four revolutionary women breaking the barriers not scared to challenge white patriarchy. This is an article for resilient women struggling to keep it all together in a world that says they don’t deserve a seat at the table, written by a fierce woman who constantly challenges the status quo. This is for women who are saying: Enough is enough. We will not sit down, we will not step back into the shadows, here we are..of all different colors, all different sizes…all different types of “Muslim,” and we will be seen. Our religion is not your cinematic plot – our religion is not your next Emmy. Our religion is how we breathe, how we put our head down at the end of the night, and no matter how much the media shows us as descendants of Osama Bin Laden, we will not change our religion for your hate. Your hate is costing lives at home and abroad.
All we need is one role model, one person who looks like us…who seems like us in some way for us to push forward and follow our dreams, to push forward and reclaim our voice.